Undergraduate Blog / Career Development

How to Succeed in an Ad Agency

Hi Everyone,

This may be one of my last posts, but I may have a few more posts left in the tank–who knows?

Because of this being one of my last posts as a guest blogger for CCD, I thought it was appropriate to end with a pretty long post that reflects on what I believe leads to success in an ad agency internship.

Without further ado, here goes:

1. Be co-operative, not competitive

During my junior year of college at Babson, I took a negotiations course. I went in thinking that in a negotiation, someone “wins”. Most people think of negotiations like this. Whenever I would describe a class negotiation to others (which happened a lot since it was an awesome class), it was inevitable that their first question would be ‘well, did you win?”.

This is how most people think of negotiations–that there’s a pie on the table and your goal in the negotiation is to see if you can get 55% of the pie to their 45% of the pie. This is called “competitive” negotiation and it’s all about getting more at the expense of others. I quickly learned that this is a terrible negotiation mindset.

You see, the best negotiators do what is referred to as “co-operative negotiation”. It’s all about co-operating with your fellow negotiators to see if you can expand the pie. So instead of saying “No, I want 55% of the pie and I won’t stand for anything less.” you say “How about this–I know you really love pie. I’m not that crazy into it. How about you give me some of your ice cream, and i’ll let you keep more of the pie?”. It’s all about understanding that you don’t have to succeed at the expense of others–that in fact you can both get more than you could’ve possibly hoped for if you work together.

I promise, this has a point–it’s that you should adopt a co-operative mindset in your approach to your profession instead of a competitive mindset. Just like in negotiations, you should approach life and relationships with the intent to create value for the people you touch, not capture value from them.

If you’re an intern or even a new hire in an ad agency (or many other agencies), I know it’s easy to think of how you’re going to succeed. That usually means being competitive. I heard horror stories from some friends this summer about how they felt that their intern groups were always “out to get them” or something, and that there just wasn’t a real cohesion with their groups. This is because when you’re young, you’re trying to make it ahead–thus you view your fellow interns as adversaries and not allies.

That’s a mistake. Begin every morning by thinking “who did I help out yesterday?” Your goal every day should be to be a support system. Always think of what you can do for others–be it putting them in touch with someone that can help them, sharing a useful article with them, or taking some of the workload off of their shoulders. If you do this, you will get recognized.

2. Build ideas together

I believe that one of the big reasons my intern group was so successful as a group was that we “yes, and”-ed. You may not have ever heard of the term “yes, and”.

“Yes, and” originates from improv comedy. You see, one of the biggest problems in an improv comedy scene is the word “no”. What I mean by that is that if you are in an improv scene with your partner and you come out talking like a pirate and they don’t join you–that’s saying “no”. Or if you come out and say “man I can’t BELIEVE Brad challenging you to a fight like that…man you got taken down” and your partner goes “what are you talking about, I’ve never fought a day in my life”. This is often the worst type of partner because they sacrifice the full scene for a couple of cheap laughs or out of fear. Saying “no” to what your scene partner does will kill an improv scene and make no one want to work with you.

In improv theory, you should always adopt a “yes, and” mindset; it’s all about accepting what your scene partners gives you, agreeing, and then building onto it–or, “and”-ing it. So if your scene partner comes out and says “man that vacation was crazy, what did we get ourselves into?” your response should be “SO CRAZY, I think I saw you literally punch a tiger!”. “Yes, and” is the foundation of a good improv scene and allows you to take a basic idea (such as a vacation) and build it into something bigger and better together (such as getting in a fight with a tiger and winning).

I promise, this too has a point–it relates to the creation and expansion of ideas. If you’re in a brainstorming session with your group, you’re bound to hear some ideas straight out of left field, ideas that make you stop and do a double-take. And that’s okay. Extremely creative ideas sometimes produce extreme ideas. Or, maybe someone shares an idea that isn’t crazy but you just don’t feel it’s strong enough or big enough. That’s okay. Just like an improv, you “yes, and” it. Accept the idea, and then build it together. Looking back to many of our ideas that my group came up with, they almost always started as something small or strange, but they ended up being built into something great because we were willing to accept and work with virtually any idea.

3. Share

Don’t hold onto your ideas. I’m sure you are extremely intelligent, and you can come up with some great ideas all on your own. However, there’s a huge strategic advantage to working with a group–you all bring a wealth and diversity of perspectives, experiences, mindsets, thinking processes, lives, and ideas to your team and your workplace. Release your ideas to the world and see if they fly. Tell your teammates. Tell your non-teammates. Tell your family (if there’s not a confidentiality agreement issue). Remember, in order to be “yes, and”-ed, you first need to put something out to be built up. On that note, once you put your ideas out there, don’t hold onto them tightly.

In the early days of my college career (god, I feel so old), I had a tendency of creating an idea on my own, sharing it, and then not wanting it to change. I would take it personally if someone tried to change it–as if it wasn’t good enough–as if it needed to be changed because it was not yet valuable. It was my idea and I wanted it to end up just as I originally envisioned it. This isn’t a good approach, and one I abandoned by sophomore year. The fact that a group has accepted the idea and is now working on it tells me that they’re saying “this is a great foundation”. And that’s a compliment–a house is nothing without its foundation.

So welcome the changes–they’re a good thing!

4. Be active

Luckily for me, my intern team was given an intern project that actually took quite a bit of time per week to complete. It was a great project and it kept me occupied. Without it, there may have been times where I had a lot of downtime–but that’s speculative.

With that said, the amount of work you have is only limited by the amount that you seek it out. Do you have a few free hours this afternoon that you’re not sure what you’re going to use it for? Use that to take the workload off of others. Walk around your department and ask everyone if there’s anything you can help them with. Not everyone will have work for you, but the people who do will appreciate your willingness.

Or, maybe you work in the Social Media department but the Account Planning or Content departments really intrigue you. Maybe this a good time to take a trip to those departments, introduce yourself, and explain that you’d love to do a project or two for their department.

5. Create something tangible

Or, maybe this is a good time to give yourself a project. As I mentioned before, the intern project took a lot of time. The thing I didn’t mention is that it produced something tangible, something usable, and also something the agency could really evaluate and refer back to as they thought about the time I spent there.

Just because your internship program didn’t assign a project doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take some self-initiative. One of the most commonly-requested skills in job listings is for someone to be a “self-starter”–this is your chance to be one! Take a trip around your department, or fire some e-mails off. Ask people what project they would like you to work on for the next month or two. After you get a solicit a bunch of ideas, write them down and assemble a long term project to work on.

At the end, you’ll have a high-quality, tangible, deliverable or presentation to your team.

6. Make the best of every opportunity

Don’t half-ass anything. If someone gives you an assignment, devote some time and effort to make it a high-quality performance on your end.

7. Don’t send a ridiculous e-mail to the entire agency–or do, i’m not sure.

So I’m sure your agency has an e-mail list that includes the all of the employees in your office. Now, I don’t think I need to tell you twice that you shouldn’t email this list about frivolous things, or accidentally.

I’m telling you twice because it happened to me, though. Erwin Penland does a ton of pro-bono work for the Greenville Humane Society. One component of this is that they send order forms out every couple of weeks for employees to put in orders for GHS products. Well, I happened to need a product–an awesome fur-removing brush called the “furminator”. So I responded to the order form requesting one, but accidentally clicked “reply all”.

Haha, well I didn’t live that one down for the rest of the internship: “Hey Ross, I really hope you got that Furminator thing…I mean, it was so important you e-mailed the entire agency–i’m getting worried man”.

So moral of the story, stay away from the “reply all” list; or don’t, it provided something memorable–and being memorable is the way to succeed in an agency.



Ross Andrew Simons